Fashion matters. Consider haute couture designer Karl Lagerfeld’s recent obituaries, extensive enough to be worthy of a prince or president. To be sure, Lagerfeld was, in uniqueness and influence, ahead of most contemporary designers, but that such status was achievable in his field is the very proof of fashion’s importance.
Also the importance of what is near-synonymous with fashion, though insufficiently remarked upon, change. Since the overwhelming number of existences is monotonous and boring, change or fashion assumes global importance. At its lowest level, it is the seductress’s request to her target, “Wait till I change into something more comfortable.” Mere erotic maneuver, to be sure, but also part of the great change issue, so much so that it can become a problem how to marginalize it or exploit it. The latter often in some preposterous designs making runway models seem to come straight from Mars or Bedlam, and earning for the designer recognition even without everyday relevance.
But there are homelier aspects of change, as in the problem of marriage, which may require fidelity and variety in need of conciliation. Thus I have heard about a married couple where the wife regularly wore a different wig to bed, allowing the husband innocuous fantasies of polygamy. But what change is there for the single man or woman? Either painlessly, through serial affairs or, perhaps painfully, through resigned abstinence?
In comes the socially acceptable fashion of changing outerwear, which introduces harmless change for both the wearer and the viewer. In other words, fashion. This is made easier for women, who can achieve relief through unlimited freedom of design. Not so much for men, whose suits have remained basically conservative, although lately male models have begun appearing on fashion runways in outfits equally diversified as those for women.
These odd new male fashions may prove especially pleasing to homosexuals, at any rate to those favoring dress-up, not to mention drag. There is another type of gay man who strives to be indistinguishable as such by becoming ultraconservative. But for the unattached and possibly cruising type of gay men, clothes, or more accurately costume, becomes a useful appurtenance. (Need I mention that I write all of this without pointing a moralizing finger at any of it?)
But for the typical middle-class male, single or married, there has been very little apparel change available. For a very long time until recently, the area where it was applicable was the necktie. So what happened to the necktie? It became practically obsolete, beginning like most fashions in France. Shirts, still essentially unchanged, were being worn unbuttoned at the neck, even on some formal occasions.
Lately though, further change eventuated in a shirt designed to be worn untucked, impossible to do with the traditional kind. But that kind achieved some fashionable diversity through changes of color, pattern, or material. And there remained the T-shirt, which moved from underwear to outerwear, from gymnastics and leisure to more general use. Further, fashion moved downward to varied hemline length and to footwear, fashionable shoes and boots of all sorts, some of them knee-high, made from diverse kinds of leather or more unusual materials.
In more northerly climates, there are coats for fashion to have freedom of indulgence. Here hemlines traffic in changes of length, perhaps even more so than they do in skirts; but in both skirts and coats, longitude matters to the woman bent on being fashionable.
Importantly, then, fashion, which is to say the language of major designers, takes on significant characteristics, whereby a trained eye can distinguish a Dior from an early Balenciaga (before the master’s death), a Saint Laurent from a Givenchy, Lanvin from a Valentino, and so on and on, with Italy and Spain, Britain and America snapping at the heels of France. For men especially, there are Armani and Versace, Brioni and Zegna, Hermes and Ferre right at the forefront of the very best, and still others, again so on and on. I leave it to greater experts to trace the relationship between fashion and culture, or between fashion and history.
Unsurprisingly, some concept of fashion has made it into the arts, even if not necessarily associated with clothing. Thus we have Dryden’s comedy “Marriage a la Mode,” Etherege’s “The Man of Fashion, or Sir Fopling Flutter” as early as 1676, and Ernest Dowson’s immortal verse “I have been faithful to you, Cynara, in my fashion” with its reference to sexual behavior. In American theater we had “Fashion; or Life in New York” by Anna Cora Mowatt as early as 1845.
And, of course, in the movies. There we had “Paris Frills” (Falbalas) by Jacques Becker in 1945, and Robert Altman’s “Ready to Wear” and P. T. Anderson’s “Fatal Threads” more recently. The figure of the powerful fashion designer, as Raymond Rouleau incarnated him in “Falbalas” as an elegant womanizer, exerts irresistible romantic appeal even when the figure is a dominant woman, like Coco Chanel (offstage and on in the musical “Coco”).
Being a fashion prince may, like all nobility, be precarious; note Alexander McQueen, Lagerfeld’s most serious rival, a suicide at forty, with no satisfactory explanation provided. Other designers, to be sure, have enjoyed a much sought after social prominence, such as even that of Vogue’s omnipresent, mildly obnoxious editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.
But to get to my own involvement with fashion--from my younger, more loosely pecunious days—there remains in my possession a single Lagerfeld item. It is a pair of light-weight pants, darkish tan with an almost invisible, thin vertical stripe, and around the inside rim a white encircling band inscribed sixteen times with “Karl Lagerfeld Paris.” The material is enviably soft, but retains its enduring shape, reaffirming for me the hegemony of fashion.